Project overview

Theory of Reference Based on Salience (Grant: NCN  2017/27/B/HS1/00130)

The project investigates the nature of linguistic reference. The underlying idea is that a referential relation between an expression and an object is not uniform but shaped by different factors related to the object’s state, such as various forms of salience, being demonstrated by the speaker, being conversationally relevant, etc. The semantic value of a singular referential expression is determined via a ranking mechanism, and is to be identified with the object which best satisfies the relevant criteria. While defending reference pluralism, we argue against a dominant approach in philosophy of language on which the speaker’s intentions play a central role in fixing reference. In the project, we elaborate on a semantic theory incorporating the idea of reference pluralism, primarily for demonstratives, but with a perspective of applying this theory to other kinds of terms.

The first general task of the project is to examine which factors are reference-significant and how they exactly contribute to creating the ranking based on which the referent is determined. We investigate the role of speaker’s intentions, deictic gesture, descriptive content of an expression, and perceptual salience. Also, we give special attention to conversational salience: we analyze mechanisms which govern the interpretation of various referential expressions, depending on the preceding discourse and its structure. For this purpose, we mainly employ the framework of Centering Theory elaborated by computational linguists. Our method combines theoretical analysis with empirical investigations, which mainly include experimental research on language.

The second general task is to design a formal semantic theory for a selected class of singular terms, based on the proposed approach. We focus on complex demonstratives expressions (i.e., „this/that F„). They are widely discussed by theorists because of two independent problems they pose: (I) how a demonstrative secures its semantic value in a context, in particular, if the value is determined by the speaker’s intention or rather widely construed context; (II) what logical form complex demonstrative have, in particular, whether they are devices of reference or quantification, or neither. By giving a response to problem (I) according to reference pluralism, we argue that the semantic value of a complex demonstrative is determined by a combination of factors, mainly contextual, with speaker’s intentions playing a supplementary role. More importantly, we argue that once we take the multifactorial nature of reference into account, we are ready to solve, or at least provide partial solutions to many different problems regarding complex demonstratives uses, which arise for referential analyses of these expressions. We aim to elaborate solutions to the problems including: no-speaker-reference uses, quantifying-in uses, various phenomena related to scope behavior, deferred and discourse reference.       

The project team is: Wojciech Rostworowski (principal investigator), Katarzyna Kuś, and Bartosz Maćkiewicz; student participants include: Marta Kasprzyk, Alicja Krasnowska.